Trial of man who forgot to pay £57 shopping bill 'lacked common sense'
The decision to take an innocent man, who forgot to pay for £57.25 worth of shopping, through the courts in a case that cost the taxpayer thousands of pounds lacked any common sense, a member of the House of Lords has said.
On Wednesday a jury acquitted tour manager Alastair Hetherington (57) of shoplifting items such as sausage rolls and milk from a Marks & Spencer store in Belfast.
Mr Hetherington said being dragged through the courts after forgetting to pay for the items before leaving the shop had left him "totally embarrassed and devastated".
The panel of seven woman and five men took just an hour to come to the unanimous decision at Belfast Crown Court.
Mr Hetherington, from Lisolvan Terrace, Brookeborough, Co Fermanagh, stepped outside the store momentarily to get a signal on his mobile phone.
The case has left the taxpayer with a bill which could run into several thousand pounds.
DUP peer and former chair of the Stormont justice committee Maurice Morrow hit out at the decision to pursue the case.
He said: "This appears to be a rerun of previous cases in which there has been a distinct lack of common sense.
"Like every one of the cases before which reached trial – the dummy, the prawns, the polo-shirts and the flowers – all were the result of accidental human error.
"This matter will, like its predecessors, have cost thousands to the public purse and I have submitted a question to the Justice Minister for a detailed breakdown of expenditure," Mr Morrow said.
"I am anxious to learn why a decision was taken in this particular case, in view of the evidence put to the jury. Cases should not be pursued in absence of cast-iron evidence. Similarly, the facts need to be examined in context, but that too appears to have been disregarded this this instance.
"We hear constantly of major cases which appear rock solid and justified, but are frequently told prosecution would not be in the public interest. So I must therefore ask – was this case in the public interest?"
Mr Hetherington was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting last February.
He told the court that what had happened was a "genuine mistake through stupidity and tiredness'' while he attempted to text a friend. A spokeswoman for Marks & Spencer said: "All cases of shoplifting in our stores are dealt with by the police and in turn the Crown Prosecution Service; therefore we do not feel it necessary to comment on this particular case."
A spokesperson for the Public Prosecution Service was unavailable for comment.